When tasting notes score 83 points

Wine tasting notes, long bastions of affectations and preciousness, have come under scrutiny recently. Apparently Eric Asimov spends a chapter savaging them in his recent book. The other day, over on wineberserkers.com, Bill Klapp performed a merciless forensic analysis on a note. But then there’s this:

Surely the problem with many wine writers is not that they write tasting notes but that they aren’t very good writers.

Ouch. Tasting notes are often badly written, which may be the the shortcomings of the writer. Possibly compounding the situation, or adding a new wrinkle, is the sheer quantity of tasting notes some critics produce–it’s hard to say something original when churning out dozens of tasting notes about similar wines that you’ve had on a few minutes with. Sadly, many wine publications appear to be joyless tasting note (and score) factories.

Throwing the Barolo out with the bathwater?

Even though they may be hard to write, tasting notes still can play in important role: a reader has to know if she’s in for a Barolo or a Bourgeuil or a Barossa shiraz. And even in a horizontal tasting, where the differences can be small, some discernible distinctions can still be be conveyed. Since they are inherently boring, it helps if tasting notes include an opinion or wit. The mass production of tasting notes leads repetition and the reaching for fanciful descriptors. And, really, it’s the rare consumer that skims skims the tasting notes to find a wine to buy–fancy a wine with some “Asian spice”? Or notes of saddle leather? Granted, I would definitely seek out a syrah that has some black olive character or a pinot noir with acidity so they certainly can be useful. But tasting notes are best produced and consumed in moderation–the tasting note as artisanal product, if you will.

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12 Responses to “When tasting notes score 83 points”

  1. Like many things, tasting notes are far easier to criticize than to do well.

  2. If tasting notes aren’t/weren’t meaningful to the reader there wouldn’t be any readers. Let individuality reign!! Salut, Ww

  3. When I review the wines I drink to enter in Cellar Tracker (so that I don’t forget whether or not I liked a wine) I rattle off numbers from the top of my head. When I taste wines blind (as I do every night for dinner – my husband selects the wines) I concentrate on what is happening in the wine and nary a number comes into my head. I feel that one can’t just choose wines at random without some kind of guide – numerical or otherwise – there are far too many wines and far too many awful ones, but those numbers should disappear when the wine is poured into the glass.

  4. I have to agree with Ww. If tasting notes didn’t serve a purpose for consumers, the people/institutions who publish them would no longer earn money from doing so. It’s easy to beat up on the shortcomings of tasting notes, but there are so many wines that the benefit of making consumers aware of more of them probably outweighs the benefits of longer reviews on many fewer wines.

  5. I’ve always thought this bit from Asimov summed things up nicely:

    Demanding absolute excellence on an unchanging universal numerical scale is not, after all, our usual measure of sensual engagement. A man who makes love to fifty-some women and then publishes a list in which each one gets a numerical grade would not be called a lady’s man. He would be called a cad. And that, more or less, is how a good many Frenchmen think of Parker: they don’t doubt his credentials; they question his character. A real man likes moles and frailties; a real man marries his wine, as he marries his wife, and sees her through the thin spots. Being impatient with the tannins in a Margaux is like being impatient with the lines on your wife’s face. They are what makes it a marriage rather than a paid assignation.

    Link to the article: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/09/06/040906crat_atlarge#ixzz2DYGh3gDq

  6. Christine: The key word is “consumers.” Once more, from the same Asimov article:

    “What consumers want is reliable beverage products, and, once wine is a reliable beverage product, it isn’t quite wine.”

    It unrealistic, of course, to think that more than a very few customers can be convinced to think like wine drinkers rather than consumers, but I at least hope to get people to understand the difference.

  7. All wine drinkers are consumers at one level or another, just as all buyers of anything are. And although it’s true that a lot of consumers prefer a reliable wine product, they actually are served by a small number of large-volume producers who don’t show up in tasting notes and don’t need to.

    But there are thousands of small and medium sized winemakers, many of whom are worthy of notice, as well as some number of consumers like me who would like to know about them. Tasting notes are one way for that to happen. Imperfect? You bet, but it’s one of a portfolio of ways to become better educated. I used them when I was first learning wine to understand what different varieties should taste like. I use them now in aggregate to identify wines and wineries I would like to try. Not based on scores as much as having learned over time to how to match up my taste preferences to particular reviewers.

  8. Christine and WW – thanks for the comments. A couple of questions:
    * Are consumers more interested in the tasting note or the score (if either)?
    * Do you really think people who subscribe to wine magazines and newsletters actually light a fire, crack open a nice bottle and settle in to read…tasting notes?!? I submit that it is the trade that is more interested in tasting notes (or, scores) and that the main place consumers encounter them are on shelf-talkers or sales emails.

    Dave – terrific quote from Gopnik that sums up the issues here nicely.

  9. The eternal justification of the American Century: if there is a market for it, it must be worthwhile. The nose on this one clearly indicates spoilage.

  10. Well, I was making a narrow point about tasting notes, not a broad generalization about all things.

  11. Christine: You’re right. For the non-industrial side of the market, notes and numbers, unsatisfying as they may be, are mostly what we have to go on, and only time reveals who we can trust. I’d add importers to the list–in the absence of other information, I’ll usually plunk down for something from Peter Weygandt, for example. Or from the Louis/Dressner portfolio, when I’m feeling reckless. 🙂

  12. Education about distributors is a huge gap. I know next to nothing about them and have encountered very little that would help me fix that.


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